Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
My all-time favorite first line yanked the rug and tossed me into the chair for a read when I discovered it in The Atlantic. In the language of reader romance, Dennis Lehane’s “Until Gwen” is a speed-date of a first line. In one sentence we learn about the narrator’s crappy childhood, crappy present life, criminal background, and criminal father. We get a sense of the characters’ relative ages and a bit of the setting. In this line we understand that daddy is perfectly willing to put his son in jeopardy. Because the narrator has chosen to let us in on that fact, we sympathize with a potentially unsympathetic protagonist and we believe he wants to go straight. Wow. That’s a lot to pack into one line, a powerful first sentence that seduced me into reading more.
And that’s what you, dear writer, must do. Whether novel, short story, memoir, or essay, all prose openings must seduce your reader to keep reading, an increasingly difficult task in our world of constant distraction. You must make your reader fall in love.
The language of love is an apt metaphor for the relationship between readers and writers: When we can’t wait to tell a friend about a great new book, we say we loved it. Many an agent has declined to take on a new author’s work, saying, I didn’t love it, even if they think it’s well written. In the realm of fiction or memoir, for an agent or editor to link their professional fortune to a story or book they must first fall in love. But while the attraction must be immediate, the form literary love finally takes can vary from book to book, story to story.
Sandra Scofield advises in The Scene Book to“think of your opening lines as the come-hither and the open door.” Here are seven ways to open that door in the world of reader attraction:
1. Speed Date
2. Blind Date
Like the first impression you get on a blind date, the opening line of a story or book is crucial because it draws the reader in with a promise. This opening line by Maud Newton, grabbed me by the lapels of my pajamas as I surfed the online literary world:
My mother was a preacher until the cops shut her down.
From “When the Flock Changed,” this was a teaser posted on the home page of Narrative. That line did its job of getting me to click through to the story. Why? Well it’s funny. And it’s unexpected, like a blind date that turned out well. Say we’ve been set up with our second cousin’s investment broker—imagine our delight in learning he was once in the Peace Corps. What a charming surprise to discover he also does stand-up comedy weekends. Readers like such surprises; readers appreciate a bit of mystery. In Newton’s story, we wonder: just what did mother preach that the police got involved? It is unexpected, her juxtaposing the second half of the sentence against the first. That first line has us eagerly anticipating the second. As Scofield advised, it is a come-hither invitation into the story. So in our world of book-love, a flirtatious opening that hints at what’s to come is a great way to catch a reader’s eye. What every blind date ought to be.
By contrast, a first date who shows up in a suit, clutching flowers and a gold box of Godiva to take you to a movie is simply trying too hard. In workshop, writers often get well-intentioned comments— “I need to know—blank—earlier.” These suggest that what readers want is the opposite of intrigue—flowers and gifts and slicked-down hair, Phi Beta Kappa key dangling from his lapel—but cramming all that data, all the “need to knows” in at the start just creates a jumble of info.
With my own novel, after workshopping and revising the opening many times based on feedback, I set it aside for a while. Then when I turned again to the manuscript, it seemed the first chapter had been written by a committee. Yeah—because it had been. Despite the “need-to-knows,” every aspect of your protagonist, every plot element, does not need to be laid out at the outset: A slow unfolding of the story is as seductive as a man with a slow hand.
Speaking of slow hands, in writing as in life, sometimes the love that lasts starts with friendship. Gregory Spatz does just that in a Let’s be Friends opening in the titular story of his collection, Half as Happy:
Summer afternoons Stan would come home from his work at the mortgage lending office in town, ten minutes away, for lunch. He’d sit by the pool sipping a cold Kokanee with his usual sandwich of turkey and ham on a whole-grain bun or organic six-grain bread, with mustard and no mayo, watching Heidi swim.
From the moment Spatz welcomes us into Stan’s world we have a sense of who Stan is and what his eighteen-year marriage to Heidi is like in a comfortable, let’s be friends way. Oh, how Stan revels in the pleasure of routine, in that ‘usual’ sandwich, which Spatz makes symbolic the third time it appears, the description of its consumption mirroring the deterioration in Stan’s view of his marriage:
He bites off a last hunk of sandwich, feels the grains break against he teeth, the mustard with its little heat and nose-stinging tartness, his one bad tooth with the disintegrating cap giving him the intermittent ache through his jaw that he enjoys bracing himself against.
By starting, not in the early days of his marriage, but with Stan reveling in the simple pleasure of his long union, near the moment the displeasure begins, Spatz also follows that oft-given advice: begin in the middle of the story. Scofield says, “It is possible to pull your reader into the heart of the story, beginning in media res, without getting lost, if your opening lines offer enough details of the situation, setting, and potential conflict.”
Dennis Lehane, chronicler of the seedier side of life, is another champion of starting in media res, as evidenced by the excerpt from “Until Gwen” that opened this essay, as well as by his recent novel, Live by Night:
Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life—good or bad—had been set in motion that morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.
If stories of criminals, mayhem, and murder are your thing, that’s an opening with white-hot chemistry. It turns out most of Lehane’s work is too dark and disturbing for me to enjoy, despite his literary stylings—kind of like the guy in a speed dating session with chemistry so white-hot it’s like a neon sign flashing “he’s the one” when he takes the seat across the table. That is until you later discover the manacles and ball-gag by his bed. Yikes! That may be your thing, but you gotta make sure your pickup line prepares the reader for the story you’re about to deliver. Lehane’s openings surely do that.
Your story’s opening lines must prepare the reader for what is to follow. A story is a promise to the reader, and your premise—that is, what the story is about—must be evident on the first page. Make sure your book’s opening informs the reader what kind of book they’ve picked up.
In the happy times, in the tell-me-again times, when I’m seven and there are no stepbrothers and it’s before the stepfathers, my mom lets me sleep in her bed.
Her bed is a raft on the ocean. It’s a cloud, a forest, a spaceship, a cocoon we share. I stretch out big as I can, a five-pointed star, and she bundles me back up in her arms. When I wake I’m tangled in her hair.
“Tell me again,” I say and she tells me again how she wanted me more than anything.
“More than anything in the world,” she says, “I wanted a little girl.”
The tender relationship between mother and daughter is beautifully sketched, and the future trouble, the coming heartbreak, is foreshadowed by mention of later stepbrothers and stepfathers. As in life, we prefer hearing about a heartbreak to having one. Let your reader know there’s trouble ahead and she’ll hang around to hear about it.
So we’ve learned that story openings can have the intrigue of a blind date or they can befriend us before blossoming into reader romance. Story love can come on fast and hard or can seduce us slowly. That’s right, a first line doesn’t have to be dramatic or memorable to be effective. Sometimes what we want is slow seduction. Violating the oft-repeated rule that modern readers don’t care for books that open with character description, here’s how Amanda Coplin opens her novel, The Orchardist:
His face was as pitted as the moon. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and thick without being stocky, though one could see how he would pass into stockiness; he had already taken on the barrel-chested sturdiness of an old man. His ears were elephantine, a feature most commented on when he was younger, when the ears stuck out from his head; but now they had darkened like the rest of his sun-exposed flesh and lay against his skull more than at any other time in his life, and were tough, the flesh granular like the rind of some fruit. He was clean-shaven, large-pored; his skin was oily. In some lights his flesh was gray; others, tallow; others, red. His lips were the same color as his face, had given way to the overall visage, had begun to disappear. His nose was large, bulbous. His eyes were cornflower blue. His eyelashes nothing to speak of now, but when he was young they were thick-black, and his cheeks bloomed, and his lips were as pure and sculpted as a cherub’s. These things together made the women compulsively kiss him, lean down on their way to do other chores, collapse him to their breasts.
One hundred and seventy-seven beautifully rendered words devoted to describing a single character. What follows is four lines of backstory, then more character description. Coplin’s opening is indeed a slow seduction. The Orchardist was short-listed for several best-of awards, was a 2012 Barnes and Noble Discover Awards finalist, and inspired this praise from NPR’s Jane Ciabattari, “Coplin displays a dazzling sense of craftsmanship, and a talent for creating characters vivid and true.”
The ‘dazzling craftsmanship’ of her first lines opens a world of possibility involving the character she described. By starting the story with an extensive description of the protagonist, Coplin alerts the reader that a character-based story follows. It works because she has selected concrete images that create a vivid picture of an interesting man.
From the speed-date of Lehane’s story to the slow seduction of Coplin’s book, the right opening helps match book with reader. Remember that there isn’t a right or wrong pick up line, as different readers prefer different styles. Spend time eavesdropping in any nightclub and you will note one woman taken with the cocky assurance of a man’s opening line, while another finds that same man smarmy.
In fact, the best way to discover what kind of opening best fits you as a writer is to look no further than your nightstand. Take a gander at what you like to read. According to Robert Masello in his book Robert’s Rules of Writing, “the kind of book you most enjoy is the kind of book you will stand the best chance of writing well yourself.”
Whether your ideal reader is drawn in by simple or by complex first lines, by rich detail or spartan prose, remember that you teach your readers how to read your story with the opening. Again, an opening is a promise of what’s to come and it is a promise which the author must fulfill.
Okay. You’re convinced of the importance of those first paragraphs or pages. Be aware that there is a danger in relying on white-hot chemistry alone. Some writers focus heavily on instant attraction in order to garner an agent (who will nab an editor, who will publish the book in hopes that it will grab a reader). They rework their first chapter, their opening scene, again and again until those first few pages are so gloriously polished the reflection is blinding. As Billie Joe Shaver sang in his country hit:
I’m gonna spit and polish my old rough-edged self
Until I get rid of every single flaw
I’m just an old chunk of coal
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day
Writers spit and polish their rough-edged first chapter—like the guys we’ve all known who are great at the initial attraction, but who can’t sustain a relationship—but the blue-pure perfection of that glorious opening loses it’s luster when compared to the rough slate of the rest of the story. Diamond brilliance followed by less-gemstone-than-coal is far too common. When the guy who you met walking his puppy in the park turns out to have borrowed the pooch for it’s chick-magnet qualities white-hot chemistry alone won’t cut it.
Sometimes it’s what comes after the opening that lends a glow to what preceded; sometimes it’s the second impression that counts. Some of the best short stories employ this technique of seeming to go one way before veering another. Cheryl Diane Kidder’s story “Ten Days Gone,” which appeared in Pembroke, is a masterful example of this second impression technique. It starts this way:
Late October, 1868, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
2 days since leaving Base Camp
Jake found this cabin. We walked for maybe two days. Inside all we found were tin cans. No firewood. There was a small table and two chairs. We broke those up the first night and burned them in the old fireplace.It must have been closed up. All we got was a cabin full of smoke. Had to sit outside until that cleared. Jake was worried about animals, but I knew if we stayed inside the smoke would kill us just as fast. I tried to tell him we should stay here and wait, but he was sure he knew the way out. I tore the wrappers off the old cans and burned those too. I tore pages out of the Bible Jake gave me and with a pencil nub wrote my first letter.
if you find this we’re heading west
This opening plays off the reader’s assumptions. Base camp, the time, the location, all lead the reader to think a pair of men, gold miners or fur trappers perhaps, are forced by weather or dwindling supplies to leave their camp in the cold. But the ‘letters’ the narrator scribbles each day on torn-out bible pages and nails to trees along the way hint at another story as they become more and more poignant.
please tell my daughter Jun I love her dearly and tell Charlie I am sorry
The reader gradually comes to understand the narrator is a woman, and that she and Jake are lost and starving, but we don’t fully comprehend their situation—how they came to be lost in the wild, the nature of their relationship—until half way through the story when the narration shifts to Jake and goes backward in time to when he first met the woman, Lin Mein, and convinced her to run away with him. And it’s not until Jake loses his mind, stripping off his clothes in the bitter cold and running into the wilderness, leaving Lin Mein alone that readers understand the tragic reality of the story, an understanding that shatters the first impression entirely.
The reader realizes their previous assumptions were false, yet the truth was right there for them to see all along. And this last is key: Layering in elements that trigger a perception, then shining a light that alters perception of those same elements is what leads to the successful use of the ‘second impression’ technique. Absent that layering of truth-there-to-be-seen leaves the reader feeling betrayed by new information revealed in the end.
This technique is especially effective in the compression of short works, but it can be put to good use in longer works as well. A novel manuscript I’m editing about a concert violinist who is also a contract killer, HitChick by David Paul Williams, starts this way:
Some claimed her favorite close encounter weapon, a Socimi type 821, was nothing more than an Italian knock off of the famous Israeli Uzi. Anyone who’d ever handled both quickly appreciated the Socimi’s refinements. Like the Old World craftsmen who created the Stradavari and Amati violins she coveted, the inspired Italians refined a good design into a work of art.
See how the third sentence alters the impression given by the first? Readers like second impressions, happy surprises that say, “you’re much cooler than I first thought.” Like a skinny nerd with unexpectedly adroit dance moves and a hip heart of pure cool, the unexpected arouses a reader’s interest. While giving an intriguing second impression, Williams sets up his story’s promise: his protagonist lives a dual life.
Now, please don’t mistake setting the tone for predictability. Do set the reader up to expect the unexpected—linger too long in the straightforward and your sudden surprise comes off as not believable.
If you suspect your openings don’t seduce the reader the way they should, here are some exercises to resuscitate your story starts:
After you’ve got a finished draft of your book or story, rewrite your opening page in several ways, trying various styles:
- in dialogue, either secondary characters or the protagonist in conversation
- in action, involving at least one other character: crying, arguing, rollerskating, dancing, jumping from a moving car, hang gliding into danger, getting shot at, discovering a dead body, burying a body, digging for treasure, in the midst of a reunion, finding a parent’s illicit love letters
- in lyrical prose, which is especially effective if unexpected for the genre of your book or story
- and, one of my favorites, in the style of your favorite books or stories. I was delighted at the new perspective I gained re-writing my novel’s opening pages in the style of several admired author’s works.
Make particular effort to employ a method which contrasts starkly with your existing opening, and with what you’d expect in your genre. You may surprise yourself, and happy surprises are what makes an agent / editor / reader buy your book.
Arouse a reader’s interest and they’ll be willing to take their shoes off, set a spell with your characters. Pick your opening flavor by examining those that get you to crack open the pages of a new book. Teach your reader how to read your story by the way it opens, then deliver on that promise. Hook them at the start, whether with a Speed Date that leaves them breathless; a Blind Date that surprises and delights; Let’s Be Friends that blossoms into romance; the White-Hot-Chemistry that lingers for the long run; a Heartbreak of the thank-goodness-it’s-not-my-life variety; a Slow Seduction they can’t get off their mind with characters they’d like to spend time with; or a you’re-pretty-cool-after-all Second Impression,and those lovely readers will not only buy your book, but will paint the sky with declarations of author-love.
Read Love at First Sight: Agents and Editors on Irresistible Beginnings, essential advice for writers compiled by Q Lindsey Barrett.